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As New York City limps through its worst budget crisis in a generation, the Corporation Counsel’s office is looking to expand the pro bono initiative it launched in May, through which the city’s major law firms have donated their lawyers to handle matters for the city. Nine associates from different firms have so far joined the Corporation Counsel’s Office for full-time stints, with five of those currently working on cases in the Manhattan or Brooklyn tort divisions. Other firms have taken on city cases to handle in-house. Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo, who cites the Pro Bono Initiative as a model of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s emphasis on developing partnerships between the public and private sectors, hopes those numbers will increase in the months to come. “The city’s need for this program is even greater now than when it was started in the spring,” said Cardozo. But that the city, both penurious and powerful, has managed to position itself as a pro bono client at all is a fairly remarkable development, and one that rankles some members of the pro bono community. Traditionally, law firm pro bono has been aimed at helping indigent individuals and families. To the extent that pro bono is a limited resource, said Doug Lasdon, executive director of the Urban Justice Center, the city’s initiative is problematic. “The problem for poor people today is they have so few legal resources,” said Lasdon. “This is the city, with much deeper pockets, taking away some of those resources.” The partner in charge of one major firm’s pro bono committee, who asked to remain unnamed, agreed. “When you’re doing pro bono, the beneficiaries should be the poor or people who have been denied some basic right because they’ve somehow been marginalized,” he said. “I don’t really see the city as that sort of client.” Cardozo said he understands such concerns, yet he believes helping the government in a time of need was also a valid goal of pro bono, one made particularly urgent by not only the budget crisis but also the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “We’re all in this together,” said Cardozo. “I think of this as a different kind of pro bono.” But there is little doubt that Sept. 11 has changed attitudes toward city government, particularly toward the police and fire departments. Thacher Proffitt & Wood, whose World Trade Center offices were destroyed in the terrorist attacks, is now handling four federal tort cases against the city, cases in which police officers are charged with excessive force, wrongful arrest and other civil rights violations. John Doherty, a Thacher Proffitt senior associate handling one of the city’s cases, acknowledged that such work might have found fewer enthusiastic lawyers before Sept. 11, when Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima and other victims of police violence dominated public perceptions of the department. Doherty said he himself had taken notice of the fact that he was representing the police, but had not been deterred. “The city is not always the bad guy,” he said, noting that he felt strongly that the charges against the officers in the case are baseless. Doherty also pointed out that a large portion of law firms’ pro bono portfolio is devoted not to helping the poor but to assisting non-profits involved in culture and the arts. Compared to such “pro bono for pretty people,” he said, defending public servants is certainly a worthy cause. A greater appreciation for the city’s position is also evident among law firm associates who have actually worked in the Corporation Counsel’s offices. Frank Scaturro, a sixth-year associate with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft now working in the Queens tort division, said government was the very essence of the public interest, and the city’s lawyers performed a valuable service by defending against the innumerable baseless suits filed against the city. “There should be more idealism about government,” said Scaturro. “People shouldn’t be apologetic about it.” Idealism is only one part of the city’s pitch to associates and their firms, however. The other is experience, and the Corporation Counsel has committed to placing associates where they can get the sort of trial experience that is slow to come their way in the large firm environment. The program appears to be making good on that commitment. Alana Liveson, a fifth-year associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, said she has completed 30 depositions since she began her stint in the Brooklyn torts office in September. “At Weil, I did none,” she said, noting that she had also picked six juries. “The experience here has been just phenomenal.”

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